During the coldest months of the year, Rockaway’s swimming beaches clear out and boardwalk restaurants shut down — but the waves keep coming, and so do die-hard surfers. “Only the more experienced surf throughout the whole winter, besides the couple of extremely dedicated students that are willing to freeze,” explained lifelong surfer and Rockaway Beach local Kailani “Lani” Mergen, 19, who works as an instructor at Locals Surf School.
Rockaway Beach feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan, but the ferry from Downtown’s Pier 11 can get you to the beach — which borders the Atlantic Ocean in Queens — in under an hour. Some surfers commute from different boroughs, like Manhattan and Brooklyn, even during the fall and wintertime. Others, like Ammon Dennis, who first learned to surf in Puerto Rico in 2013, move from different parts of the city to Rockaway to have easier (and more frequent) access year-round.
“I’ve been out when it’s snowing,” Dennis, 46, said. “It’s actually kind of cool, because you’re the only one out there — or one of the few.”
Surfing in New York City was technically illegal until 2005, when the section of shore at Beach 90th Street became the “first legally surfable beach within New York City limits,” followed by another spot at Beach 67th Street two years later, according to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Both are home to a tight-knit community. “Rockaway has a big family of locals that take you in and never let you leave,” Mergen said.
This article first appeared in NYU Pavement Pieces.